Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cashing in on Vintage Guitars

The guitar pictured above is a Gibson L-5, non-cutaway without pickup which belonged to June Carter Cash. She played it on road dates she performed with her husband, the famous Johnny Cash. The strap is a little worn but the tooled leather reads, "Mother Maybelle Carter", June's mother from the original Carter Family recording artists.

I worked for Rose Guitars in Hendersonville, Tennessee while I was attending Volunteer State Community College, studying Journalism in nearby Galatin. One day I came into work after class and found the guitar behind the counter, ready to be re-strung. My first revelation that it might be something special was the mint condition the guitar itself was in. When I saw the strap my natural curiosity leaned toward  wondering if this was actually the "Mother Maybell guitar", the one she had recorded the old standard, "Wildwood Flower" with in the early days of recorded Country music.

Closer inspection led me to realize that this was a newer model L-5 with the better known, fancy tailpiece and could not have been that old. When I asked Jonathan Rose about it he laughed and said he wondered how long it was going to take me to realize what was there in the shop. It turns out, the Cash family, who also lived in Hendersonville, had all of the work done on their guitars by Rose's shop. There were no doubt other shops in and around Nashville who also did work on their instruments but our location was handy and a trust had developed over the years.

While doing a later article on Mother Maybell's original L-5, which rests in the vault at the Country Music Hall of Fame, I realized that her's was a deeper, darker sunburst in what I've heard called "Iced Tea" shading, which comes from years of exposure to stage and natural lighting. The CMHOF would not let me take flash pictures but they were kind enough to let me pick out the "Wildwood Flower" on this historic instrument. I did the same with the June Carter guitar pictured here - after I re-strung it for them.

But the Cash connection doesn't quite end there. I later met Johnny's brother, Tommy while standing in line at the local post office where I was shipping out a guitar. He approached me and said he recognized me from the local TV show I played guitar on and, of course, I knew exactly who he was as well.

As we waited in line, Tommy asked me if I worked full-time at Rose and I explained to him that, like all Nashville musicians, I had a couple irons in the fire and one of them was trading in vintage and celebrity-owned guitars and other instruments. As we talked longer, he mentioned that he had some older guitars and instruments which his brother, Johnny had given him over the years.

My conversation with Tommy Cash culminated in the consignment of the unique guitar pictured below, an Aria Pro II. It had indeed been owned by Johnny and he signed a certificate of authenticity to prove the fact. He also had a story about the inlay work and the wookwork on the heel of the guitar, which had been done by the brother of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Arthur wrotes song for Elvis Presley including "That's Alright" and "My Baby Left Me" during his Sun Records years.

The guitar had a hard time bringing the price we settled on and when I finally found a buyer, Tommy backed out of the deal because his brother's health had taken a turn for the worse and he was more interested in keeping the relics he had been given over the years. I returned the guitar with no hard feelings and told him I realized that the significance of a gift from a loved one was certainly understandable.

Of course, Johnny passed away in 2003 just four months after his beloved wife June died. Before he passed on though, I went by his place once a month and dropped off the latest copy of Vintage Guitar magazine for them. I always put a note in the magazine saying something like, "I've put Elvis & Carl Perkins on the cover of this magazine, it just wouldn't be complete without you there as well." I had a standing order from the publisher that if I could get Johnny Cash to agree to an interview we would most certainly feature him on the cover.

After a few months of this in the late '90s I got a message from his property's manager. He said that Johnny's health and scheduled business simply would not allow for time to do this. He also said John appreciated my interest and that if circumstances were different he would be glad to do so. At that I left him alone and decided I had had my brush with the Cash enterprise. It was time to let a man who had finished his labors rest in his peaceful setting on Old Hickory Lake.

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